Overall, 2011 was not an extraordinary year for Hip-Hop music. I read the word “classic” used often by reviewers to describe some of the albums of this past year, and I found it grossly inaccurate. It was a solid year and some really good music came out, but it’s hard to think of an album from this year that I can see myself still playing heavily even just 2 to 3 years from now. The lows of the year, it seems the trend of duet albums that started in 2010 continued, but it backfired resulting in lackluster efforts from some of the major artists. I think we all could’ve lived without Wiz Khalifa/Snoop or Gucci Mane/Wacka Flocka Flame. Eminem and Royce have put out much better work than Hell: The Sequel, and as catchy and successful “Niggas in Paris” became as a single, Jay-Z and Kanye are capable of much more than the wildly uneven Watch The Throne. Lupe Fiasco’s Lasers, perhaps the most anticipated Hip-Hop album of the past THREE years, was a complete disappointment.
The highs of the year, many new artists emerged, such as Kendrick Lamar, Tyler the Creator and Action Bronson, and they all but stole the show from the vets and have the potential to all have very impressive catalogues in the years to come. The highest selling “Hip-Hop” artist Drake, fully realized his effectiveness as an R & B artist, (with a matching Aaliyah tattoo to boot!) resulting in his sophomore album, Take Care being much more of an artistic expression than his generic sounding debut album last year. A few veterans dropped some bangers as well, most notably Common making a comeback of sorts, and Tech N9ne pushing himself into mainstream consciousness. Again, nothing especially noteworthy or truly “classic”, but some solid music came out this year.
Here are my top ten choices of the year, in no particular order, for the hip hop inclined. You might see names you do not recognize, but really its 2012, if you’re still just listening to what is force fed to you on your hot radio station, you probably should’ve remained in 2003.
Kendrick Lamar – Section. 80
In years past he was clumped together with the likes of Dom Kennedy and Fashawn as one of the emerging artists in California. This year, with the release of Section. 80, he has emerged as THE artist in California. His lyricism and creativity has already leapfrogged that of The Game. His choice of song concepts are impeccable, and delivered with such sincerity that he could make any type of listener relate to the frustrations and potential traps coming of age in the City of Angels. He’s working with 90% talent and 10% marketing but he’s already an internet heavyweight and landed spots on Drake’s album and Dr Dre’s yet to be released De-tox. He’s going to be someone a lot of artists will want to work with in 2012.
Reks – Rhythmatic Eternal King Supreme
Reks has been well respected for being a hard-hitting straightforward lyricist of the highest order. That respect got him the most prolific producers in underground Hip-Hop to contribute to his 2011 album Rhythmatic Eternal King Supreme. DJ Premier, Hi-Tek, Alchemist, Pete Rock, Statik Selectah, you name him, Reks has a beat from him, and spit some vicious bars over it. If you like your Hip-Hop raw, no-frills, unapologetic, lyricism + boom bap, this was the best this year had to offer.
Tyler the Creator – Goblin
You have to give Tyler the Creator some credit, based on his shocking but charismatic persona and a cult internet following, he has forced his way into mainstream Pop culture with music that is far from radio friendly. We’ve heard this stuff before, for years, Brotha Lynch Hung, Necro & even Eminem have already pushed the envelope with shocking lyrics that include stuff like rape, suicide, drug abuse, cannibalism etc. Tyler found a way to do it to make it seem almost cute and trendy, like a Hollister brand version of a snuff tape. Time will tell if he can improve his lyrical dexterity and can evolve beyond shock appeal, Goblin was nonetheless one of the more intriguing cuts of 2011.
Pharoahe Monch – W.A.R. We Are Renegades
Pharoahe Monch has always straddled the fence between being a socio-political “conscious” MC, and one that just wants to kick provactive bars and have a good time. This album saw him standing firmly on the side of the socio-political commentary. It is not for everyone, it can come across as preachy and quite frankly the lyrics are so layered and intelligent they will go over a lot of listener’s intellectual grasp. Nonetheless it was a joy to have the veteran MC kick master level rhymes about stuff that really mattered. The “Assasins” track featuring Royce Da 5’9 and Jean Grae simply has to be heard if you’re a lyricist aficionado.
Royce Da 5’9 – Success is Certain
Royce had a good year, his collab album with Eminem as well as the lyrical massacre his Slaughterhouse camp performed on national TV on the BET Hip Hop Awards got him a brand new audience. With Success is Certain he didn’t abandon the message board point and click crowd that supported him with zero mainstream exposure these past couple of years. It was a just solid release that builds adequate anticipation for his future solo projects as well as future collabos with Eminem and Slaughterhouse.
The Roots – undun
This is perhaps the closest to “classic” of an album that you are going hear from 2011. undun is a high quality conceptual album in which The Roots, with a few strategic guests try to paint the picture of the life of a young Philly drug dealer from beginning to end. They went all out and released it with a short film, and a multimedia Iphone app to really drive the story home. The album was just too short, and there were too many instrumental tracks so that the listener could really emphasize with the protagonist of the story. What we are left with is still a powerful and innovative artistic statement from the legendary Hip-Hop band.
Action Bronson – Dr. Lector & Well Done
With these two stellar releases Action Bronson has established himself as the preeminent buzz rapper from NYC. If you haven’t heard him before, be prepared to hear a fat, white, Albanian street kid from Queens, who sounds strikingly just like Ghostface, has the mature street suave of a Kool G Rap or Ill Bill, and is quite comfortable laying lyrics down in a laid back stream of conscious flow similar to MF Doom. It’s an odd mix but bottom line, this dude has obviously studied the best of New York MC’ing and has enough charisma and talent to help carry the torch of that east coast street flow well into 2012 and beyond.
The Game – The R.E.D. Album
This album is probably going to end up being the pinnacle of The Game’s career. He pushed his limited lyrical talent to the excess. He reclaimed the support of Dr. Dre and enlists his production as well as that of DJ Premier, Pharrell, Bangladesh, Cool & Dre, DJ Khalil, and just about any hot producer you can think of. He also gets guest verses from Lil Wayne, Tyler the Creater, Kendrick Lamar, Snoop, Drake and just about any hot artist you can think of. The end result with all that firepower still isn’t the Illmatic, Doggystyle or Ready to Die that The Game always wanted to create, but he does what he does best, which is spit it out sincerely as a true student, disciple and consummate fan of gangsta rap.
Lil Wayne – The Carter IV
His material is still ignorant and overly reliant and simple punch lines (“I’m running shit, I’m on my cardio/I’m going in, like my water broke”), but Weezy has evolved. He would have never put out songs like “How to Love” or the introspective “Nightmares From the Bottom” five years ago. His album could’ve been front to back filled with catchy punch lines like those found on “John” and he would’ve easily still sold just as much as he sold, but give the dude credit for taking risks. The album is a good time, but it has some substance to it. The interlude “cipher” featuring Tech N9ne, Andre 3000, Bun B, Shyne, NaS, and Busta Rhymes is also one of the standout moments of this year.
Elzhi – Elmatic
I’ve always had the utmost respect for Elzhi and considered him one the top MCs we’ve had on the underground for the past decade. Notheless when I heard he was recording Elmatic a tribute album to NaS’ Illmatic I wanted to slap him. Illmatic is the greatest Hip-Hop album of all time, I don’t even think it’s even debatable at this point; it’s the epitome of what Hip-Hop as an artform is supposed to sound like. It’s like if Darren Aronofsky remade Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 Space Oddesey. Darren Aronofsky is a competent director, perhaps even the best in the business presently (go watch Black Swan or Requiem for A Dream) but some pieces of art you just don’t touch. Nas himself doesn’t even try to equal or eclipse Illmatic. As 2011 winds down, I’ve had a year to bump and absorb Elmatic, I still want to smack Elzhi, but I respect the tribute. He captures the feel of that album and reframes it in his Detriot style. Sonically it updates the sound but doesn’t try to one-up it. It truly is homage, and I can appreciate that.
Other noteworthy albums that just missed my top ten:
DJ Quik – Book of David
Drake – Take Care
Raekwon – Shaolin Vs. Wutang
Saigon – The Greatest Story Never Told
Random Axe – Random Axe
Curren$y – Covert Coup
Dessa – Castor, The Twin
The Cunninlynguists – Oneirology